Get your leis ready: The Wayne Duke Championship Trophy is on the line. I am a devoted fan of the North Carolina Tar Heels, but I do not think that they are taking home the trophy. I project Notre Dame will haul in the Wayne Duke Hardware and serve notice that no one is going to run away with this year's NCAA title—not even the vaunted and unanimous No. 1 Tar Heels.
The Maui Invitational, one of the more exciting preseason tournaments, tips off at 3 PM today. North Carolina goes in as the favorite, but they face some reasonably stiff competition, though not on their side of the bracket.
I will now present my bracket for the Maui Invitational and a brief breakdown of not only the first-round games, but also what I predict is in store for the ensuing rounds of play.
As always, the tournament is hosted by the Chaminade University Silverswords. Here is a list of the other participating programs (all ranks are Associated Press ranks, as of Nov. 24, 2008).
Alabama Crimson Tide, Indiana Hoosiers, No. 1 North Carolina Tar Heels, No. 8 Notre Dame Fighting Irish, Oregon Ducks, No. 6 Texas Longhorns, St. Joseph's Hawks
The Projected Bracket
Texas d. St. Joseph's, Notre Dame d. Indiana, UNC d. Chaminade, Alabama d. Oregon
Notre Dame d. Texas, UNC d. Alabama
Notre Dame d. UNC
Breakdown of Round One
No. 6 Texas vs. St. Joseph's
St. Joseph's hasn't played in over a week. Unfortunately, their last game was a 73-69 loss to Holy Cross on Nov. 16. Texas court giant Dexter Pittman will continue a scorching start to the season, and the imposing front line, supplemented by three-point sharpshooter A.J. Abrams, will be too much for the Hawks and Ahmad Nivins to handle. Rick Barnes gets his program-high 250th win for the Longhorns. Texas, 84-66.
No. 8 Notre Dame vs. Indiana
Luke Harangody posts his third straight double-double to open the season as the Hoosiers stay competitive for most of the first half, but can't stay with the experienced and talented Irish for the long haul. Coach Tom Crean is 5-3 against Notre Dame, but this isn't a team he can win the big game with...yet. Indiana bragging rights go to the Irish, 74-60.
No. 1 UNC vs. Chaminade
Star Tyler Hansbrough is expected to play and shake off more of the rust that was evident against UC-Santa Barbara on Friday night. Deon Thompson, Wayne Ellington, and Ty Lawson will light up the upset-minded Silverswords, who almost always put on a good show for at least 10 minutes. I don't think they'll manage to stay in it even that long. North Carolina, 96-60.
Alabama vs. Oregon
Which is worse, Alabama's loss to Mercer or Oregon's loss to Oakland? Considering that Oregon struggled to beat Northern Colorado in its opener and the Crimson Tide has looked less than stellar in its opening games, this matchup looks to be an ugly game. I've seen nothing from the Ducks that show me they have what it takes to beat even a lower-tier SEC program. Alabama wins ugly as the teams combine for 40 turnovers, 69-63.
Breakdown of Round Two
No. 8 Notre Dame vs. No. 6 Texas
I expect a barnburner between two experienced, athletic teams. The Longhorns' big men battle the Irish inside-out game. If the shootout comes down to free throws, Notre Dame better perform better than they did in the 65-54 victory over Loyola Marymount, in which they shot a dismal 59.2 percent from the charity stripe. Luckily for them, it comes down to a game-ending three-pointer instead. Notre Dame, 77-75.
No. 1 UNC vs. Alabama
Coach Roy Williams once again thanks EA Sports (tournament sponsor) for the lopsided bracket matchup, and UNC dispatches Alabama with ease. Look for a replay of the thrashing that the Tar Heels gave to Kentucky. Alabama simply cannot contend with UNC's depth or athleticism, and the Heels will control the pace of the game. North Carolina, 88-63.
No. 8 Notre Dame vs. No. 1 UNC
The talk of an undefeated season ends here. It's not because UNC isn't the better team; it's because they will sorely miss defensive specialist Marcus Ginyard against their first real competition of the season. It also won't help that reserve Tyler Zeller is now out for the season. The inexperienced freshman F Ed Davis and still-gimpy PG Bobby Frasor won't be enough for the Heels off the bench.
If Ginyard were available, he would help shut down Harangody, but without him, the threes will be raining down on the Heels like a summer storm. Hansbrough will still be rusty, though he should have no problem posting a double-double.
The Heels will win if they get to the free throw line early and often, force Notre Dame into a bunch of turnovers, and most importantly, control the pace to their liking. Notre Dame wins if they shoot close to 50 percent from the field, which I predict they will with the ailing Ginyard still out. Notre Dame stuns my beloved Heels, 89-86.
In the long run, the loss will be good for UNC. They don't need the pressure of trying for an undefeated season and all the media hoopla that would accompany it. They need to see their vulnerabilities early, so that they can work to improve them. This game will be one of only two losses UNC will suffer before the NCAA tournament in March.
After this game, however, the Heels will be ready to return to the mainland.
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